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Treasures of Thailand

Many visitors assume, understandably so, that Thailand is historically noted only for its ancient sculptures and temples. There are so many magnificent examples of temple architecture, one can be quite overwhelmed by the sheer number of temples and historic markers. Also, depending upon where one is visiting, such examples may be influenced by other cultures Lanna Thai, Burmese and Khmer. But they are all impressive in their own unique ways perhaps monumental in size (Wat Chedi Luang), exquisite decor (Wat Prathat Doi Suthep) or small and simple in a wonderful location (Wat Prathat Doi Kham). The Thais are, indeed, noted for their sculpture and temple architecture.

What is perhaps not so well recognized is the Thai history of personal adornment. A walk along Wualai Road will show that the craft of silver smithing is alive and well and the number of gold shops testify to the continued popularity of gold necklaces, rings, brooches, bangles and so on. But where did such craftsmanship begin because the passage of time has erased much of what was uniquely Thai (Dai or Siamese) jewelry and items for personal or State decoration.

Some of what has been discovered dates as far back as far back as 1500-500 BC. This was the period of the Bronze Age in South East Asian and archeological digs have uncovered many interesting pieces. At the prehistoric sight of Baan Chiang in Norng Haan district, 55 kilometers southeast of the provincial capital of U-don Thani province in Esarn or Northeastern Thailand skeletons were unearthed and they were richly adorned with finely crafted bronze ornaments necklaces, bracelets, armlets, anklets, calf bands, finger rings and beads. Thai bronzes were of a high quality and many, particularly in the etched designs and spirals, were similar to that of the Dongson culture of North Vietnam. So culture, craftsmanship and design flowed with the movement of people around East, and South East, Asia.

Later dating from the early AD centuries, and indicating a progressive development of ornamentation and jewelry, gold finger rings, earrings, pendants and necklaces were discovered at digs near U-Thong and Nakong Pathom. More recently again, skeletons and body jewelry were uncovered at an archeological site near Srisatchanalai which predated the Sukhothai period.

Most impressive of all "finds" was some of the personal and State ornaments from the Ayutthaya period. Ayutthaya was the capital city of Siam from 1350 to 1767 AD and had amassed a rich collection of State and Royal decorations in gold and precious gems. Regrettably, most of these object d'art were carried away, or melted down, by the Burmese who sacked Ayutthaya on several occasions. However, in a crypt underneath what was Wat Rajapurana, a treasure trove of Royal Regalia was missed by the Burmese and left for posterity. Fabulous, exquisitely smithed gold pieces, studded with the most precious of gemstones, were found swords, armlets, crowns, head bands, rings, miniature shoes, jewelry boxes and a miniature, crouching Royal elephant all beautifully crafted in sophisticated detail. These treasures had been placed in the crypt, below the chedi, with the ashes of two Siamese brothers both Royal Princes who had managed to kill each other during a fight for supremacy.

Today, though few of us will ever see them, the Thai Crown Jewels and Royal Regalia carry on that tradition of superb craftsmanship in gold, diamonds and precious stones. Dinner dishes, cosmetic trays and containers, Royal betel nut boxes, water flasks, gold enamelled jewelry boxes, trays and salvers are all part of the Thai Royal Collection. One item we might see, perhaps on a televised State occasion, is a stone encrusted decoration on the tunic of HRH The Crown Prince. It is the seven pointed ancient and Auspicious Order of the Nine Gems which is part of Thai Royal Regalia of Rank and was given to HRH The Crown Prince upon his appointment to that rank.

So Thailand is not only rich in its sculpture and temple architecture but also wealthy in its heritage of classical jewelry design and exquisite and exquisite work of its talented goldsmiths. It is a heritage which springs from long experience!


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